The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Pauline Fisk

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Pauline Fisk

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Summary: Pauline has produced a reissue of her Smarties Prize-winning Midnight Blue for Kindle herself. It has a gorgeous new cover image and lots of interesting stuff about the various inspirations that led her to write the book. We were lucky enough to chat to Pauline about the book, the reissue and about writing in general.
Date: 5 November 2011
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Pauline has produced a reissue of her Smarties Prize-winning Midnight Blue for Kindle herself. It has a gorgeous new cover image and lots of interesting stuff about the various inspirations that led her to write the book. We were lucky enough to chat to Pauline about the book, the reissue and about writing in general.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

PF: When I close my eyes, it's stories, places and the people I might write about that I’ll most likely see. I'd be reluctant to imagine readers because that might put me off. I'd feel awkward and self-conscious, caught out in something deeply private, and probably a bit guilty, too, because I'm such a slow writer.

No, the only reader I'd really dare image is someone like my younger self - hungry for books, loving words, loving the world of imagination and the secret world inside their head. Everybody's got a secret side, however they might appear. So if I imagined any other reader, it wouldn't be their clothes, hair, music, age or even their sex I'd see. It would be their secret self, deep inside. Books are great for going heart to heart.

  • BB: We love books that feature a passage between worlds as Midnight Blue does. Do you think children are more ready to accept them than adults are?

PF: As a fan of fantasy and magic realism, I’d say absolutely not. You don’t have to be a child to accept a river flowing through the sky as in Mad Dog Moonlight, or Jack's vision at the end of The Beast of Whixall Moss, or Bonnie's experience of another world in Midnight Blue.But you do have to be in touch with that place of wonder and suspended disbelief inside yourself - which anyone can do of course, but I'd say, from experience, that adults are more likely to be the ones who require explanations.

It's not that children don’t ask why. They do. But they accept thing too. The unexpected happens and they go along with it because that's what life’s like if you're a child. You're at the mercy of what it brings, whether in the form of parents, teachers or whoever else.

If I want to keep faith with children, I've got to write from their perspective, rather than concern myself too much about the adult one. CS Lewis famously defined a good children's book as a book that can be enjoyed by anybody, and I'd go along with that - but the child's point of view should always be paramount.

That's why I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of cross-over books. In the interest in new markets, there's a danger of children being left behind. Do I want my stories to be read by adults? I want everyone to read them, yes, but children most of all. After all, when I write a good book for a child, I'm helping to create a reader of the future who'll be open enough one day to accept and enjoy Ray Bradbury, JRR Tolkien and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. .

  • BB: If you could sail a balloon above the sky, what do you imagine would be waiting for you in your very own alternate reality?

PF: Can I change the word imagine here to hope? My imagination's a tricky character, so here are some of the things I'd hope to see, if it would only let me:

Firstly, my children waiting for me as little kids again, not the grown ups – albeit lovely ones - they've become, and time to enjoy them without being tired (I have five children; when they were little kids, I was always tired).

Secondly, I'd hope to see Shropshire, as beautiful as the first time I ever set eyes on it, just the way Bonnie found it when her magic balloon landed on Highholly Hill.

Then, if it wasn't greedy of me, I'd hope to see all the favourite places I've ever visited, from the coral reefs and jungle trails of Belize, which I wrote about in In the Trees, to the Alhambra on a winter's day, Venice in spring and Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives shimmering in the heat. And I'd hope that love would be there on the other side of the sky, and that the people in that alternate reality could live with dignity and in peace.

Is that stretching hope too far? I don't know - but one thing's for sure. Without hope, I wouldn't dare imagine anything at all. .

  • BB: How much influence does landscape have on your writing?

PF: You'll have picked up from the above that its influence is great. As a young child, my stories were always inspired by places first and people afterwards. I'd go somewhere and immediately know I’d got to write about it. And today I'm just the same. The only book I’ve written which wasn’t based on somewhere I’m intimately connected with is Tyger Pool - but even there it was the image of the star-window in the old disused cinema that set me off, not the Rocket family who lived in it.

In Flying for Frankie my book refused to come to life until I moved the action to the vibrant waterfronts of Dartmouth, Devon. Sabrina Fludde and The Red Judge owe their existence to my buying a house in Shrewsbury and becoming so excited about the secret life of the town that I literally couldn't write about anything else. And Midnight Blue is little short of a eulogy for a very special farmstead where I once was privileged to live.

Hampton Haze stood on the hilltop above my village. In the morning when the sun came up, its windows turned to gold and you could see them shining for miles around. For much of the time I knew about it, it stood empty – an abandoned farmhouse with quarry tiled floors, stooping beams, a jumble of rooms, corridors and staircases, and a massive ingle-nook fireplace for burying oneself away on winter nights.

One unforgettable autumn, when the builders moved into our family home, we moved, lock, stock and barrel up to Hampton Haze. It was wonderful to have the chance to bring it back to life – fire in the Aga, rattling in the plumbing, footsteps on the stairs, laughter all over the house. And writing about it was another way of bringing it to life.

There would have been no Midnight Blue without Hampton Haze. It might be Bonnie who made that story happen by daring to run away in a magic hot air balloon. But Hampton Haze – or Highholly House, as it's called in the book – was more than a mere backdrop. It was the heart of Midnight Blue. .

  • BB: Do you own a Kindle? How much of a challenge was bringing Midnight Blue to the e-reader format, and did you enjoy it?

PF: Yes, I own a Kindle. The things I don’t like about it are its being flat and grey and not smelling of paper. The things I do like about it are being able to slip it into my bag when I want to travel light, and being able to read from it whilst eating without pages flapping everywhere. Kindles are useful. And books have never been so easy to buy. Downloading a book onto a Kindle is an amazing experience – it's there in front of you at just a click. However, a quality hardback, on nice paper and well-jacketed, is a thing of beauty. And the Kindle can't beat that.

In answer to your second question, yes, I enjoyed bringing Midnight Blue back to life, not least because there had always been little bits of editing in the text that had niggled at me and it was good to have the chance to sort them out. But, more than that, I found myself strangely touched by Bonnie's plight, coming back to it after all these years. When she faces the choices which come at the end of the book, my heart goes out to her, and when she and her scatty mother, Maybelle, are reunited, I still care enough, all these years later, for there to be a lump in my throat.

As to the challenges of bringing out a book in e-reader format – well, to a non-techie like me, a very steep learning curve was required. But it's been good for me, no doubt about that. Seeing a book online in the Amazon Kindle shop, and knowing its being there, from content to fabulous new cover, is all down to me, is an extraordinary feeling. I’ve been a writer for over twenty years, now I’m a publisher too.

And, throughout the entire process, I’ve had plenty of help. Amazon Kindle’s Direct Publishing website started me off. Then, when I finally had to admit I couldn’t understand it, I came across a wonderful beginner’s guide to Kindle publishing at Reclusive Muse. Then I became part of Authors Electric, a group of professional UK authors who independently publish e-books for Kindles and other devices, and I not only started posting on their highly entertaining daily blog, ‘Do Authors Dream of Electric Books but started availing myself of their encouragement and advice.

The writer's life is often solitary – by nature that's how it has to be. But once in a while it’'good be part of a community. And as well as a brand new Midnight Blue I now have that too. .

  • BB: Your books are varied: they don't conform to a single genre and nor are they targeted at a particular age group. Is this a deliberate choice or has it happened by accident?

PF: I'm sure it would be easier to market me if I'd stick to one thing and do it over and over again, but no, I've never done that and I don't suppose I ever will. Writing – especially where children are involved - is too important to waste on making life easy for marketing departments. What we're engaged upon is a battle for minds and imaginations, and I don't see how we writers can possibly push forward here if we don't allow ourselves the freedom to keep our own minds alive.

So one time I'll write a book about a child with no identity, as I do in Sabrina Fludde, leaning heavily on myths and magic realism, giving my story a lyrical, pastoral quality with a strong sense of mystery. Then, hang the magic, I'm writing The Mrs Marridge Project, a cautionary but funny tale about not getting boyfriends off the internet. Then again I’m heading off to the jungles of Belize funded by the Arts Council and the Society of Authors (thank you very much) for a novel about gap year volunteering. And the mix here isn't planned; it's just how things happened. And the books aren’t targeted at age groups, by the way. They’re written to capture imaginations - and there's a world of difference between those words. .

  • BB: Do you write every day? And where do you do it?

PF: I may be a dreamer in some respects, but I'm a pragmatist when it comes to work. During much of my writing life, I've had to juggle my creative time with the demands of a large family, so I've had to train the inspiration to come not when it feels like it but when I have the time.

Having said that though, better an hour a day than seven hours once a week. That's something I learned back when I was writing Midnight Blue. In order to keep the book moving forward I had to utilise whatever time I had - getting up at 5am before anybody else was awake; dropping domestic and other commitments in favour of writing as soon as children went to school or playgroup or had their naps; developing a sense of disciple in my writing life which has kept me focused ever since, and still serves me in good stead.

Where do I write? Well, I have an office on the ground floor of my house. It's not particularly grand, it's usually untidy, it's fairly cold and I love it to pieces. It has books stacked up two-deep on many of the shelves, paintings on every available wall, a couple of computers on desks and an old black cooking range set in a huge fireplace down which blow howling draughts. For a number of years it didn't have a door, and there was even a time when one of the windows was boarded up because drunks had thrown a brick through it and, as a listed window, it took a while to repair.

As you might gather, my office is nothing like the elegant studies that the weekend Guardian used to featured in its Writers’ Studies series. But I still manage to work in it - in fact I don’t like working anywhere else .

  • BB: Which was your favourite book as a child? And which book would you recommend every child to read?

PF: I have two favourites. Firstly, Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, which set my imagination on fire, not only with its stories but its way with words, and had the added attraction of being one of the few children's book to find a way into my determinedly unbookish home. Secondly, AA Milne's Winnie the Pooh, which first inspired me to write stories of my own.

As to recommendations - as a child in school I read a book that completely captivated me. It was about real children, real danger, real magic and a real threat. I couldn’t put it down, but afterwards I couldn’t remember its name and thought I'd never find it again. One day, however, rummaging through a bookstall for good reads for my children, I came across it. Just looking at the dwarf on the cover gave me tingles down my spine. I bought it, of course, and read it as an adult and enjoyed it again. It's the perfect example of what I was talking about above. A good book for children that anyone can enjoy. Its name? The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Its author? Alan Garner!

  • BB: What's next for Pauline Fisk?

PF: Since my gap year novel, In the Trees, I’ve been on sabbatical. For over twenty years, I'd been writing novels non-stop and it was definitely time to take a break. Since then I've been working on my website, blogging, publishing online serialized extracts from my Belize travel journal and preparing for the Anniversary Kindle edition of Midnight Blue. Now, finally, I'm returning to writing and to what I’ve always tended to think of as ‘the big one’.

They say that everybody has a story in them, and this one is mine and the reason I haven’t written it until now is part tiredness (this one’s going to be hard work) and part a sense of inadequacy )am I a good enough writer to do this story justice?). But it's also part cowardice too. In other words, am I brave enough to pull this one off?

During the Second World War, in the face of Hitler's invading army, a young Guernsey girl – my mother - was packed into the hold of a small boat in which she spent thirty-six hours dodging mines in the English Channel, escaping to England from her Channel Island home. The events of those few traumatic days and what happened to her afterwards changed her life. This was never anything she wanted to talk about, but she died leaving behind a short written memoir of her childhood up to and including that brutal evacuation, and it’s obvious, reading it, that if anybody knew about the passage between worlds which we were talking about earlier, it was my mum.

If you want to know more about her story, follow this link . If you want to know what I’ll make of it, watch this space! .

  • BB: Thanks for such fascinating answers to our questions, Pauline. We feel like old friends now! Best of luck with the reissue of Midnight Blue and rest assured yours is a space we'll be watching!


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